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African American Undergraduate Success in Engineering: The “Prove Them Wrong" Syndrome or Social Responsibility

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2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Indianapolis, Indiana

Publication Date

June 15, 2014

Start Date

June 15, 2014

End Date

June 18, 2014



Conference Session

Focus on African-American and Hispanic Engineering Students’ Professional and Academic Development

Tagged Division

Minorities in Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

24.145.1 - 24.145.13



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Paper Authors


Kalynda Chivon Smith Howard University

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Dr. Smith earned a Ph.D. and an M.S. in social psychology from Howard University in Washington, D.C., and her B.A. in psychology and English from Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri. Dr. Smith has managed a three-year longitudinal NSF-funded research project across four campuses, which has included collecting, analyzing/interpreting, and reporting data through article writing and conference presentation. She also has taught various psychology courses.

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Lorraine N. Fleming Howard University

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Lorraine Fleming is a professor of civil engineering and dean (interim) of the College of Engineering, Architecture and Computer Sciences at Howard University. Her research focuses on issues related to the attraction and retention of underrepresented minorities, particularly African Americans, in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines, and to improving the quality of engineering education for undergraduates. She is a Carnegie Scholar and a Fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

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Inez N. Moore Howard University

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Inez Moore, M.Ed., is a doctoral student in the educational psychology program at Howard University. Currently, Ms. Moore is a graduate assistant for the Howard University Science, Engineering, and Mathematics (HUSEM) program. There, she engages in research focusing on STEM education and issues surrounding retention. Her research interests include college access, STEM education and retention, race and culture, achievement, and human-subjects protection.

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Silas E. Burris Howard University

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Silas E. Burris is a third-year developmental/experimental psychology doctoral student at Howard University. His research interests include narrative comprehension, comprehension processing, and increasing the external validity of psychological research to include underserved and underrepresented populations.

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Fabiana Bornmann

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African American Undergraduate Success in Engineering: “Proving them Wrong Syndrome” or Social ResponsibilityAfrican Americans have made strides in various fields of study, and yet there is stillunderrepresentation of African Americans in the science, technology, engineering, andmathematics disciplines (Roach, 2004). The United States’ history of prejudice anddiscrimination towards African Americans regarding education has had a two-fold effect: first,the denial of access to post-secondary education, and second, a lack of self-efficacy in AfricanAmericans in educational attainment because of the prolificacy of negative stereotypes abouttheir achievement (Allen, 1992).Steele and Aronson’s (1995) work on stereotype threat supports that knowledge of negativestereotypes about the achievement of African Americans can lower that achievement. Due tostereotype threat, it is not surprising that successful African American students might be afflictedwith the “prove them wrong syndrome”, in other words, the need to disprove negativestereotypes about African Americans’ academic achievement with their own success (Moore,Madison-Colmore & Smith, 2003). While the existence of the “prove them wrong syndrome”may be intuitive due to the extensive research on stereotype threat, DuBois (1903) proposed thatit is the responsibility of the successful ten percent of African Americans, the “Talented Tenth”,to assist the remaining ninety percent in becoming successful. The concept of socialresponsibility is not novel; however, DuBois spoke specifically of college educated AfricanAmericans’ responsibility towards those with fewer resources, which has not been oftenempirically studied, if at all, regarding the perceptions of African American engineeringstudents.This study presents data from individual interviews and focus groups (male, female, coed)collected from African-American engineering undergraduates (N= 36) during their sophomoreand junior years at two historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). The interview andfocus group questions focused on participants’ family history, academic experience, thoughts onengineering, diversity, expectations, post-graduation plans, and their support systems. Thispaper will address the impact of the “prove them wrong syndrome” and drive to be sociallyresponsible, as outlined by DuBois’ (1903) concept of the “Talented Tenth”, on the pathways ofAfrican American undergraduates through their engineering curriculum.Students were asked in the interview and focus group sessions did their race or their genderimpact becoming an engineer. When asked directly, the majority of students reported their racedid not impact their becoming an engineer; however, both male and female students reportedthey were aware of negative stereotypes targeting African Americans and their academicachievement. Students reported feeling that it was their responsibility to debunk the negativestereotypes; however, students across both campuses and genders more often reported it wastheir duty to the African American community to be successful and assist in the success ofothers. Students felt confident a degree in engineering would enable them to do so. Thesefinding suggest that although students mentioned "proving them wrong” syndrome, thisphenomenon did not guide their behavior, rather, their responsibility as African Americanengineering students was to support the African American community by serving as role modelsand mentors to African Americans.ReferencesAllen, W. R. (1992). The color of success: African-American college student outcomes at predominantly White and historically Black public colleges and universities. Harvard Educational Review, 62(1), 26-45.Du Bois, W.E.B. (1903). The talented tenth. In B. T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, P. L. Dunbar, & C. W. Chesnutt (Eds.), The Negro problem (pp. 31-75). New York: AMS Press.Moore, J. L., Madison-Colmore, O., & Smith, D. M. (2003). The prove-them-wrong syndrome: Voices from unheard African-American males in engineering disciplines. The Journal of Men's Studies, 12(1), 61-73.Roach, R. (2004).Losing ground.Black Issues in Higher Education, 2(2), 28-29.Steele, C. M. & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69, 797-811.

Smith, K. C., & Fleming, L. N., & Moore, I. N., & Burris, S. E., & Bornmann, F. (2014, June), African American Undergraduate Success in Engineering: The “Prove Them Wrong" Syndrome or Social Responsibility Paper presented at 2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, Indiana. 10.18260/1-2--20036

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2014 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015